POWER PLAYS

Nigeria 2019 | ENTERTAINMENT, CULTURE & SPORTS | INTERVIEW: NIGERIA’S GROWING SOFT POWER

Nigeria's film and music industries are portraying it in a more favorable light than ever, shaking off all the negative connotations.

FOr some time, Nigeria has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The country's name used to be associated with drug and human trafficking, cybercrime, and corruption, which led many to think of the country as unsafe and deeply troubled. Boko Haram and its campaign of terror were not helping the country's international image either.

At the same time, there is no denying that Nigeria has been a major player in West Africa for as long as anyone can remember, not least due to its sizeable population, booming petroleum industry and large oil reserves, and relatively higher standards of living. Barack Obama once went as far as calling Nigeria the most critical part of the continent, adding that “If Nigeria does not get it right, Africa will really not make more progress."

Nigeria has seen a number of ambitious rebranding efforts carried out—for instance—by Dora Akunyili, the country's former Minister of Information, among other people, which have definitely been right steps in the right direction in their own time. However, Nigeria's growing soft power seems to be far more effective in changing the country's image than campaigns overseen by government committees.

The soft power factor that has come into play in recent years and made all the difference in rebranding the country largely draws on Nigeria's music and film industry—commonly referred to as Nollywood. Recently, a well-known Nigerian musician expressed his amazement at hearing Nigerian music during his visit to Iran. Similarly, Nollywood has gone beyond Nigeria's borders, popularizing the Nigerian accent, dressing style, and mannerism. In a sense, “Nigerianness" is already in the process of becoming something desirable rather than a red flag.
This growing cultural influence is rebranding the country not only in the region but also in the world—so much so that a positive correlation can be seen between Nollywood's rising popularity and the number of arrivals to Nigeria—which went up by 12% in 2017 to reach an all-time-high of 2 million visitors.

Once only visited by adventure-seeking backpackers, Nigeria is now also hosting families and mainstream travelers. Indeed, four out of 10 countries with the highest arrivals in Nigeria are outside of Africa; the fact that that British, Indian, Chinese, and American travelers have been heading for Nigeria in great numbers in 2018 is a sign of Nigeria's improved image and growing soft power.

This is not to say that all issues bedeviling Nigeria have disappeared overnight. The country is still facing pressing problems in areas such as education, food security, transportation, and administrative transparency, which will not go unnoticed by the world. Some might even argue that Nollywood's sensational portrayal of the Nigerian life is doing more harm than good.
However, one must remember that the entertainment industry is, more often than not, promoting those very same values which hold the Nigerian society together. The music industry, in particular, is providing a space for a rereading many narratives of life as experienced in Nigeria in an understandable and popular language.

Although, as with everywhere else, the music industry has its fair share of boastful songs focusing on violence and sex, more and more songs with authentic narratives can be heard these days. It is even conceivable that this retelling of the shared Nigerian experiences in the form of hit songs is functioning as a kind of mass therapy to overcome the traumas—to let go.
In an interview with TBY, Falz, a Nigerian rapper and entertainer, emphasized the elements of “story," “message," and “humor" in his hip-hop lyrics—themes which are becoming typical of not only hip-hop but also Nigeria's other well-known music genre: Afrobeat.

According to Falz, “many things are not in place in Nigeria. We come in contact with these things every day, and as an artist, one is affected by the environment. It is impossible to live somewhere and not draw inspiration from the environment around us. Our voices, as entertainers, are perhaps the loudest right now." In this view, the entertainment industry is not merely contributing to Nigeria's soft power; it is also giving a voice to its people.